Museum educator giving a school tour

César Chávez (1927–1993)

Painted portrait of Cesar Chavez
César Chávez by Manuel Acosta / Oil on canvas, 1969 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift of Time, Inc. © Manuel Acosta

Across the San Joaquin Valley, across California, across the entire nation, wherever there are injustices against men and women and children who work in the fields—there you will see our flags—with the black eagle with the white and red background, flying. Our movement is spreading like flames across a dry plain.

         – César Chávez

César Chávez’s experience with racism and poverty as a child impressed him with a commitment to improving the conditions of Mexican Americans. Chávez worked in the California vineyards and noticed that landowners generally paid Mexican workers much less than white workers.

In response, Chávez formed the Farm Workers Association, dedicated to improving the status of farm workers through unionization. Chávez and other leaders in his movement viewed its success as crucial, not only for the fair treatment of migrant workers, but for the future of Mexican Americans as a minority group.

In 1965 the FWA initiated a strike on the California grape industry in reaction to the corporate growers’ refusal to satisfy demands for improved working conditions and pay. The Delano Grape Strike lasted five years and eventually attracted international attention. The American public’s reaction to this high-profile strike ranged from firm antagonism to passionate dedication. Grape growers acquiesced to Chávez’s demands in 1970, and the strike ended.

Chávez helped to draw national attention to his cause by organizing massive protest marches and practicing civil disobedience—methods inspired by other nonviolent civil rights–era movements. Chávez brought his personal leadership and vision to the movement by practicing hunger strikes, making national speaking tours, and forming important political alliances.

Through his leadership, Californian farm workers achieved a major victory with the passing of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which protected workers from violence and discrimination. Chávez died at age sixty-six in 1993.

Learning to Look: Relating Portraiture to Biography

1. How would you describe Chávez’s expression? What effect does the plain background create?
2. What types of colors did the artist use, and how do these relate to Chávez’s work?
What effect does lighting have on the portrait? Chávez said, “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride. When people see it they know it means dignity.”
3. What is on Chávez’s shirt? What does the bird stand for? What is the connection between the Aztec eagle and Chávez’s goals as an activist?

César Chávez Suggested Activities

For younger students:
The Aztec eagle on Chávez’s shirt symbolizes the historical accomplishments of his Mexican ancestors. This symbol inspired Mexican Americans to demand their civil rights. Ask students to brainstorm, draw, and present different symbols related to Chávez’s life and work (for example: grapes, fields, farm tools, protest signs, the American flag). What is the significance of the chosen symbol?

For older students:
Create a contemporary background for the portrait. What would Chávez advocate today and where would he go to protest injustice? (American farms, Wall Street, public schools, the Capitol?) After pasting Chávez’s image onto the new background, discuss its effect on the portrait.